“We can’t go on. We cannot pretend that something really destructive, something really corruptive happened when communities came to celebrate this kind of violence. We have to talk about it. We have to acknowledge the wrongfulness of it.”
The violence Bryan Stevenson, founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, is referring to is lynching. A gruesome racial terrorism perpetrated on African Americans in the United States from the end of the Civil War until the 1950s. And it will finally be talked about when the National Memorial for Peace and Justice and the accompanying Legacy Museum open to the public on April 26 in Montgomery, Ala. Both are powerful, but the memorial (aka, the lynching memorial) with its hanging monuments denoting the location of documented lynchings and the names of the victims will garner the most attention.
“We haven’t created spaces in this country that tell the history of racial inequality, of slavery, of lynching, of segregation that motivate people to say, ‘Never again,’” Stevenson told me in the latest episode of “Cape Up.” The forthrightness of the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., the Apartheid Museum in South Africa, the Kigali Genocide Memorial in Rwanda and the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin all informed Stevenson’s efforts in Alabama.
The memorial and the museum, which I’ll write about more fully in another piece, are the visible manifestation of an argument Stevenson has been making eloquently for years: A clear and direct line can be drawn from slavery to lynching to Jim Crow to mass incarceration. In narrative and architecture, our horrifying history is compellingly and powerfully presented. Key to understanding this history is coming to terms with the role of “racial terror lynchings.”
“Black people were typically lynched in communities where there was a functioning criminal justice system,” Stevenson told me in a windowed and law-book lined conference room in his Montgomery headquarters. “Black people were lynched for things like walking too close to a white woman, for asking for better wages, for preaching equality . . . . So when we talk about racial terror lynchings, we’re talking about the racialized violence that was directed at African Americans, following emancipation, to reinforce racial hierarchy, to reinforce white supremacy.”
As brutal as lynching was, Stevenson explained, the barbarism didn’t end with the hanging. “People would be castrated or their fingers would be cut off in this violent torturous mutilation of the body,” he said, “shooting the corpse a thousand times, cutting off parts of the body, selling these parts as souvenirs, posing with the body, as if there was something to celebrate in this barbarity.” Thousands of people participated in these macabre spectacles. Mailed postcards from these murder scenes were common. Also common was the moral silence to what was happening that is rooted in our slavery past.
“The great evil of American slavery was involuntary servitude or forced labor. I really believe that the true evil of American slavery was the narrative of racial difference that we created to justify it,” Stevenson said. “The reason why nobody cares that thousands of black people are being hanged and drowned and beaten and burned to death on the courthouse lawn while thousands cheer is because we have this ideology of white supremacy, we have this narrative of racial difference that that victimization doesn’t matter.”
When it comes to U.S. history and the honest placement of African Americans in it, Stevenson is one of the nation’s most persuasive voices. He convincingly makes the case that the move of African Americans to the north made them “refugees and exiles from terror.” He also argues that the Great Migration devastated black advancement by separating families and rendering irrelevant skills learned over generations in the south. Then he added this:
We devastated the ability of African Americans in this country to do what other immigrant populations had done, which is to work hard and acquire wealth. Black people worked hard and they were lynched for it. They worked hard and they were forced to leave for it. They worked hard and they were disenfranchised and humiliated for it. And that story hasn’t been told, and the consequence of that bigotry hasn’t been acknowledged. And in fact, what we do is say, “Oh, the black people, they don’t work that hard. They’re not this, they’re not that.” We continue to develop these narratives about some deficit in the African American community.
When you think about it, when you really think about it, how enslaved black people got their emancipation and chose to work with those who had enslaved them, chose to find a way to do business, chose to find a way to forgive their enslavers, to live in peace and harmony, and despite that heroic choice, were mistreated for it, were disenfranchised for it, and then they were terrorized for it. And even in the midst of terror and lynching, black people weren’t calling for vengeance. They weren’t calling for violence and revenge, they were just calling for peace and security. And during this period of civil rights, . . . when you understand the legacy of lynching and the violence that people face, you have to think differently about what Claudette Colvin did on the Montgomery bus. What Rosa Parks did on the Montgomery bus. By resisting segregation, they were risking their lives. They were saying, “I’m prepared to die for freedom.” And we haven’t acknowledged that . . . .
And it saddens me that African Americans, when they express their pain, when they protest about police violence, when they question inequality, when they raise issues of bondage and discrimination, African Americans are seen as not patriotic. I can’t identify a race of people in this country who are more committed to the health of this country, who believe more in the Constitution, who believe more in equality and liberation and fairness to everyone else than black people. Because despite the brutality, despite the hate, despite the violence, we keep saying, “Let’s find a way to move forward.” And it’s a remarkable story of a community of people who desperately just want peace.
Listen to the podcast to hear more of what Stevenson has to say on the link between our slavery past and our mass incarceration present. And on what he hopes the memorial and museum will do for America.
“We’re all burdened by our history of racial inequality. It’s created a kind of smog that we all breathe in and it has prevented us from being healthy,” Stevenson said. “Part of the vision for me at this museum is I want to create a country where 100 years from now black and brown people are not presumed dangerous and guilty, where we acknowledge this history, where we recover from it.”